Ceres’ mysterious bright spots captured in greater detail by Dawn

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Dawn is currently surveying Ceres from its second mapping orbit and as it delivers stunning new images of the dwarf planet daily, the mysterious bright spots continue to baffle scientists.

According to mission control, Ceres is an interesting dwarfy with its surface packed with interesting and unique features. Consider for example the case of icy moons in the outer solar planet says Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Most of these moons have craters with central pits, but in case of Ceres central pits in large craters are much more common and these will enable scientists to better understand the inner structure of Ceres that cannot be sensed directly.

At just 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above Ceres, Dawn has been studying the dwarf planet in detail from its second mapping orbit and the latest view of its intriguing bright spots, located in a crater about 55 miles (90 kilometers) across, shows even more small spots in the crater than were previously visible.

Latest images reveal that there are at least eight spots next to the largest bright area, which scientists think is approximately 6 miles (9 kilometers) wide. Though scientists say that the reflective material responsible for these spots could be ice and salt, there could be other possibilities as well.

Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer allows scientists to identify specific minerals present on Ceres by looking at how light is reflected. Each mineral reflects the range of visible and infrared-light wavelengths in a unique way, and this signature helps scientists determine the components of Ceres. So, as the spacecraft continues to send back more images and data, scientists will learn more about the mystery bright spots.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In addition to the bright spots, the latest images also show a mountain with steep slopes protruding from a relatively smooth area of the dwarf planet’s surface. The structure rises about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the surface.

Ceres also has numerous craters of varying sizes, many of which have central peaks. There is ample evidence of past activity on the surface, including flows, landslides and collapsed structures. It seems that Ceres shows more remnants of activity than the protoplanet Vesta, which Dawn studied intensively for 14 months in 2011 and 2012.

Dawn is the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct targets in our solar system. It arrived at Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, on March 6, 2015.

Dawn will remain in its current altitude until June 30, continuing to take images and spectra of Ceres in orbits of about three days each. It then will move into its next orbit at an altitude of 900 miles (1,450 kilometers), arriving in early August.